LAWRENCE — The president of Lawrence PBA Local 119 and other cops suing the township over an alleged ticket quota scheme are defending their union and lawsuit in the face of anonymous attacks.
“Change is never easy,” union leader Marc Caponi said Tuesday in an interview with The Trentonian, noting his goal with the civil-action complaint is to “create awareness and change policing throughout the nation.”
Six township cops — Officer Caponi, Officer Andres Mejia, Sgt. Scott Stein, Detective Andrew Lee, Lt. Joseph Amodio and Officer Hector Nieves — filed a lawsuit Oct. 7 in Mercer County Superior Court alleging Lawrence Township and chief of police Brian Caloiaro authorized and implemented an illegal ticket quota system that extorted unsuspecting motorists to maximize local government revenues. The lawsuit further accuses Chief Caloiaro of retaliating against officers who blew the whistle on alleged misconduct.
Since then, Lawrence Township Municipal Manager Kevin Nerwinski slammed the whistleblowing cops in a blog post, saying their civil-action lawsuit had no merit. Nerwinski also made hard-hitting comments on social media, including a passionate defense of Caloiaro: “Our Police Chief has more integrity, ethics, morality and honor in his little finger than all of these Plaintiffs combined.”
Nerwinski said he will make no further comments on this issue as the matter plays out in court, but an anonymous person going by the alias “Joe Stench” sent The Trentonian several emails describing the plaintiffs as the “selfish six,” and another source going by the alias “Sam Smith” suggested the PBA rank-and-file members “gave a vote of no confidence to the lawsuit of six selfish individuals.”
“There has been a lot of reporting from uncorroborated anonymous sources regarding PBA meetings,” Caponi said Tuesday in a statement. “There was never a no-confidence vote in the litigation. There was a vote by the PBA to support filing suit against the municipality earlier this year. Out of fear of additional retaliation towards other PBA members, a decision was made to pursue the litigation for the six most-targeted members at their own expense.”
PBA 119 was originally listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit alongside the six cops, but the union voluntarily withdrew from the litigation without prejudice on Nov. 14, court documents show. Caponi confirms the union withdrew from the litigation because most of the PBA members present at an Oct. 17 meeting voted to remove PBA 119 as a plaintiff in the litigation.
Caponi said the PBA’s rank-and-file members supported legal action earlier this year but that many of them became “scared” once Nerwinski heavily bashed the plaintiffs hours after the lawsuit was filed.
“People — the rank-and-file — are afraid of the administration in the township,” plaintiff Mejia, vice president of the PBA, said Tuesday in an interview. “They are afraid of retaliation.”
The PBA leaders shared an audio recording of their Oct. 17 meeting to show the vote to remove PBA 119 as a plaintiff was never one of “no confidence.” In the recording, one of the PBA rank-and-file officers said he has “respect” for the PBA executive board but suggests “most of us don’t agree with you” on the total verbiage of the 35-page complaint.
The Trentonian obtained a copy of an anti-lawsuit petition signed by 15 members of Lawrence Police Benevolent Association 119 and dated Oct. 17.
“The reason that members of PBA 119 are requesting removal of our entire unit from this litigation,” reads the petition letter, “is because a vote inclusive of our whole group related to the involvement in this litigation was not conducted.”
PBA 119 is conducting its annual fund drive for 2019-20, but the union’s executive officers say the money raised will support community organizations like the Special Olympics and Lawrence Township Meals on Wheels and not the plaintiff attorney Christopher A. Gray of Sciarra and Catrambone LLC, who filed the whistleblower lawsuit on behalf of Caponi and crew.
“No fund-raising dollars are used for this litigation,” Caponi said. “Fundraisers support the PBA’s community programs and charitable endeavors.”
Caponi was responding to an anonymous person who had accused the PBA of “asking for donations to fund their lawyer bills so they can sue the town’s people.”
“We donate to all different kinds of charitable organizations,” said Detective Lee, one of the six plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The anonymous source, whoever he or she is, maybe he or she could come forward, show your true identity.”
Mejia, the union’s vice president, said the Lawrence Township Police Department has a “very toxic work environment,” adding, “It’s been that way for some time.”
Lawrence has two separate police unions — PBA 119 and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 209 — and the municipality uses that dynamic to “divide and conquer,” Mejia alleged. “They divide the rank-and-file, and then they conquer.”
Municipal Manager Nerwinski, according to the PBA executive leaders, prefers the FOP union and would love to see PBA members defect to the FOP en masse, which would further isolate the six plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The Trentonian in November 2009 published an article detailing how the then-newly formed Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 209 gained the upper hand over PBA Local 119 in the area of contract negotiations with the township.
As previously reported by The Trentonian, seven Lawrence Township police officers in 2012 filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the township alleging a pattern of retaliation, humiliation, ostracism and lost pay because of their union activities. The plaintiffs in that lawsuit included members of the FOP and PBA; whereas the six plaintiffs in the active Mercer County Superior Court litigation are exclusively aligned with the PBA.
“We were able to effect change before,” Mejia said, referring to a major shakeup in the police department following the 2012 lawsuit.
Nerwinski accused the 2019 plaintiffs of being bad cops, saying it is “good law” that “requiring police officers to meet quotas is illegal” but questioning how the township can supervise or manage “police officers that come to work each day, sit in their patrol car and do no traffic enforcement while cars speed by, people unsafely hold cell phones, or drivers drive drunk.”
During Tuesday’s interview, Mejia presented The Trentonian with enforcement data showing he is highly productive on patrol.
Union President Caponi said the whistleblower lawsuit is a “David v. Goliath” battle, adding, “We ain’t backing down.”
“The township manager, chief of police, and their followers are trying to address this lawsuit as a popularity contest in the court of public opinion rather than a court of law,” he said. “The truth will prevail, and we will continue to pursue this with integrity, ethics, while we wait for a judge and jury to make the determination.”
“We took an oath to protect and serve,” Caponi added. “Never did I anticipate that I would need to protect the public from the actions of the police department and municipal administration.”